Sunday, June 26, 2005


Case Brief: Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800 (1982)

Here's another case brief that should make the lives of law school students and CJ students a whole lot easier. Please do not copy this verbatim. Instead, use it as reference for writing your own case brief. Sometimes the issues of older cases are hard to grasp compared to the varied legal issues surrounding the cases we work on today, which is the only reason I post my own briefs.

Name of the Case

Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800 (1982)

Facts of the Case

Two former Senior Presidential aides and advisors, Bryce Harlow and Alexander Butterfield, were previously denied the use of immunity as a defense in a civil case. The case involved suit brought by the current respondent, A. Ernest Fitzgerald, in which he stated that the petitioners had entered into a conspiracy while employed as Senior Presidential Aides. The court denied the use of immunity as a defense by citing that anyone who should have "reasonably" known that any action violating another persons civil rights, or denying them any Constitutional rights, would be considered an action with malicious intentions, and that the actions of the petitioners clearly violated those rights.


The issue in the case is where the scope of immunity falls, and how it is applied to Senior Presidential Aides and Advisors.

Court Decision

The case is remanded for further opinion.

Rationale for the Decision

Justice Powell delivered the opinion of the court. After noting the decision passed down by the Court of Appeals, in which they did not offer an opinion as to the denial of immunity for the petitioners, the Court sought to grant certiorari. It was stated that public officials require the protection of immunity in order for them to complete their jobs in a timely fashion without having to worry about lawsuit after lawsuit hindering their performance. In the case of the President and his Cabinet, prosecutors, legislators, and related entities, "absolute immunity" is granted, allowing them to be shielded from all legal action. However, in the case of executive officials, those who are Aides, Advisors, and the support staff for the Presidential body, an issue of qualified immunity is applicable. As cited through Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232 (1974), "… we acknowledged that high officials require greater protection than those with less complex discretionary responsibilities." In that case, the public policy being drawn by the official is also representative of the moral and judgment of the official himself; unconstitutional conduct must not be met with absolute immunity if only to justify the means. A claim of absolute immunity by an executive member must be in relation to a matter of national security or foreign policy. In the civil case involving the petitioners, the matter at hand was of public policy, in which it is duly noted by the Court that previous courts overlooked their desire for qualified immunity. At the same time, an official must petition the proposal for qualified immunity, and it could easily be recognized as "good faith" immunity and a "good faith" defense. The petitioners sought to serve the Presidential cabinet, thus making their efforts ones that were thought to be for the good of the country. At no point in time did they realize they were breaking any rules or regulations. In that case, being that the District Court knew the facts of the case, it was remanded for further opinion.

Concurring Opinions

Justice Brennan, Justice White, Justice Marshall, Justice Blackmun, and Justice Rehnquist join in concurring opinion. Justice Brennan notes that the issue of qualified immunity allows for the Court to investigate and question as to what the defendant did have knowledge of, in relation to the issue of "reasonably have been expected" in term of the knowledge of civil or Constitutional violations. Justice White, Justice Marshall, and Justice Blackmun join him. Justice Rehnquist notes that the Court is willing to review the decision in Butz v. Economou, 438 U.S. 478 (1978).

Dissenting Opinion

Chief Justice Burger delivered the dissenting opinion of the Court. The Chief Justice notes that the President and his Cabinet are offered absolute immunity, and that the staff, consisting of Aides and Advisors, is only offered qualified immunity. The support staff acts as alter egos to the President, which in turn, should give them the same immunity as the President, being that they make the decisions and write the policy for him. If the Aides and Advisors to the President are required to balance and weigh every move they make, it will interfere with their ability to do their job.

Holding of the Court

While the President and his Cabinet are offered absolute immunity, which shields them from suits, the executive staff is only offered qualified immunity. This qualified immunity grants them immunity under certain conditions, mostly relating to national security, foreign, and domestic policy, opposed to immunity from all suits.

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